Prevention Works


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“If one of us has HIV, all of us have HIV. If one of us is in jail… all of us are in jail. If one of us is unemployed, all of us are unemployed. If one of us is homeless, all of us are homeless. [We need to adopt the] mentality that what happens to my brother, black, white, brown, pink or green, what happens to him is also effecting what happens to me… [Until we get this, we’ll] just continue to go around in circles; nothing changes, and nothing changes.”

“I don’t believe, right now, we understand the ramifications of PreventionWorks! closing,” said Ron Harris, a former employee. “I commend the other organizations who are going to try and pick up the slack, but there is such an unseen, voiceless… population out there that needs the service that PreventionWorks! provides. I don’t know if the other organizations, right now, are up to speed to meet that need.”

A Feb. 8 statement from the Board of Directors of PreventionWorks! said, “On February 25, 2011, PreventionWorks! will close its operations after over 12 years of life-saving services as a non-profit organization supporting individuals struggling with drug use… PreventionWorks! began in 1996 as a project of the Whitman Walker Clinic. In 1998, PreventionWorks! incorporated as its own organization after the U.S. Congress passed legislation forbidding the District of Columbia from using its local government funds to support harm reduction services and prohibiting organizations that received federal funding from operating a syringe exchange program, even if funded by private donations.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, an HIV/AIDS rate of more than 1 percent is considered a “generalized and severe” epidemic. In the District of Columbia, the HIV/AIDS rate stands at more than 3 percent. Harris said, “It’s hard to get people in this city to mention the word ‘epidemic.’ It’s very hard to get them to say the words out of their mouth.”

The District of Columbia is not a state, and its local legislation must be approved (or not) by Congress. It’s unclear how many lives have been lost due to Congress’ ban on the District providing local funding for needle exchange. While the ban ended in 2007, its effects continue to this day. Harris said, “A couple of years ago, the federal ban was lifted… but we were so far behind the eight ball… and the virus was getting up to and beyond epidemic proportion with IV drug users. We’re sort of playing catch up now.”

For large projects, of questionable benefit to the most vulnerable, the District government has provided massive subsidies: convention center hotel to be owned and operated by Marriott ($272 million); baseball stadium ($991.8 million); Adams Morgan hotel ($46 million). Preventing PreventionWorks! from going under does not appear to be a high priority for the mayor or D.C. Council, despite the District’s HIV/AIDS epidemic and the critical work the organization has done. “It makes me wonder about this city’s commitment,” said Harris. “Why can’t we just take, say, $200,000 of that [development money] and sure up PreventionWorks! and support it?”

“PreventionWorks! is the granddaddy of needle exchange… [They reach] the IV drug users that folks don’t see, [who are] hard to reach, [who] don’t go to community meetings, [who] don’t go to ANC meetings… That’s who PreventionWorks! reached out to.” The organization’s closing means that “a population of folks who are IV drug users, who might be HIV infected, [are] not going to get service. This whole city should be concerned about that.”

In concluding their Feb. 8 statement, the Board of Directors wrote, “Above all, we acknowledge the courage and resilience of the PreventionWorks! clients themselves, who, despite the disease and stigma of drug use, have continued to persevere through their journeys of recovery in a society that has failed to provide adequate and effective resources for people struggling with addiction.”

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